Viral advertising: Communication through infections

Mònika Jiménez Morales

Citación recomendada: Mònika Jiménez Morales. Viral advertising: Communication through infections [en linea]. "", num. 6, 2008. <>

  1. Introduction
  2. Mutant viruses for differentiated objectives
  3. How to measure the success of viralness?
  4. The most infectious virus in 2007
  5. As a conclusion
  6. References


1. Introduction

When in 1994 a small American publishing company published a book titled "Media Virus," very few knew from the start the impact this publication would have on the new generations of advertisers, and of course, on consumers throughout the world. With a bold cover in bright colours, professor Douglas Rushkoff explained to his readers how some free e-mail services - Hotmail or Yahoo!, among others - added corporate advertising to their user's outgoing messages. According to Rushkoff, every time this message reached a "sensitive" person, or somebody interested in the server's advertising, the user was "infected," that is, they would register their own new e-mail account, then infecting all other users who s/he sent a message to from that point on.

Similar to the author's theories, the existence of the book "Media Virus" was spread through a blazing word-of-mouth communication, until reaching best-seller status in only a few months. "Viralness" as an advertising tool has just installed itself in the - up to now - prude world of advertising.


2. Mutant viruses for differentiated objectives

Despite the fact that the most recalled Spanish viral advertisement is where MTV made millions of Internet users love a girl called Laura, there are many types of viral advertising, similar to conventional advertising, which are defined relative to each campaign's objectives. The most common is what we receive in our emails with the emphatic "Pass it on!" From chain mails that claim to grant bad luck for not forwarding it, to economic requests for humanitarian reasons or comedic videos with or without clear advertising objectives.

This format is chosen by many advertising campaigns that in recent years have ousted conventional forms of advertising due to its efficacy. "Amo a Laura" (, "Levántate ZP!"(, both from Tiempo BBDO,or "No corras delante del oso" ( , from the Catalonian agency Doubleyou, are just some examples of this type.

Secondly, incentive viralness is viral advertising that offers some type of award in exchange for providing personal data - from a company or third party: Discount vouchers, promotional products...this information is an esteemed treasure for companies using unconventional advertising as a way of contacting with potential clients. Other more frequent forms of viral advertising are the "teaser strategies," or intrigue. In this sense, the agency in charge of the campaign makes a special effort so that the user does not immediately identify that the message received is part of an advertising strategy. This way the advertising messages first come with clues, surprise or retail gifts, seemingly insignificant, disseminated throughout the city so that the consumer him/herself ends up questioning the presence of these elements in their regular context: graffiti in colours that slightly remind us of the logo of a well known cola brand, electronic Christmas emails in August, video games that reach emails with no apparent reason...the fact is that these campaigns begin to receive a lot the media's attention, and often, the resulting interest from the target audience.

While not as linked to advertising, we find other forms of viralness in data bases managed by the users themselves. Facebook, Fotolog, or, among others, are clear examples of these forms of "infecting" messages. That is: the users use the data bases provided by on-line services to manage their network contacts. After this, each user invites different people to form part of their community, who at the same time, involve other users to become part of the "members club" started by the first user. It is worth noting that at this point, the first type of viralness we referred to: "Pass it on!" and the latter do intermingle, since the majority of advertisement campaigns spread throughout the internet, once escaping the email servers of the advertisers, end up being disseminated through the personal databases of millions of users, so that their potential effect may be multiplied to unknown limits.


3. How to measure the success of viralness?

Given the recent outbreak of viral advertising in advertising strategies, another example we could classify as "classic" is Unilever´s viral advert for Axe, with the objective of reinforcing the deodorant campaign during the Christmas campaign. The action consisted in a digital card with a girl in a bikini smiling and moving her body, while an internaut could caress her with the mouse pointer. This animation was sent to AXE´s client database, and the users forwarded it to their contacts network, which would then send it to their own network of friends...this way AXE reached a never-before reached number of users with similar psycho-demographic characteristics, focusing the message impact on the product's target.

However, it is worth noting that the impact of the viral advertisement was not easy to predict, and the formula through which the success calculation is made is not to the advertiser's liking since it is not very rigorous: the faster the return to the place of origin, the greater the campaign's success.

As Kirby and Marsden (2007) assure, "if an infected prospect emails the same advertisement to more than one sensitive prospect, (in other words: the base infected rate is greater than one), the standard results of the epidemiology imply that the number of infected prospects will grow following a logistic curve." The authors highlight that in reality, this idea follows a mathematical function that appears in a variety of population growth, epidemic and social network models, among others. For both, this function "constitutes a refinement of the exponential growth model of a given magnitude."

As a result of this formulation, it is interesting to see how the users themselves receive and then forward the message. According to the authors, if a campaign starts by sending a message to 100 users, market research is necessary to see how many of them forwarded it. Supposing that "the quantity is 80 percent, 80 people will receive a 'first generation´ forwarded message. After this, each following generation will decrease the forwards more or less exponentially, in a way that each one will be less than the previous. This is, in reality, the most often used formula by the advertising agencies and marketing departments to analyse viralness success or failure figures in an advertising campaign.

As we previously mentioned, despite not satisfying the interested parties, it is still worthwhile to calculate the "investment-impact" ratio in viral campaigns. If an advertiser must assign an initial budget to the sending of the first emails, the viralness assumes the rest. That is, the forwarded messages do not generate costs for the company after the first generation, and once one of these campaigns passes the third generation of forwards, success is usually guaranteed - since the majority of market research shows that until a message reaches the fifth generation of forwards, the number of users receiving the message is usually greater than the previous generation.


4. The most infectious virus in 2007

Another advantage of viralness is the lack of geographic frontiers in an advertising campaign's dissemination. The target is universal, and in this sense, the primary and secondary audience objectives become stronger than ever. The products, brands and advertisers name itself leave their original geographic location behind. Keeping in mind that the advertiser often convert television commercials into viral campaigns then become public domain, in the most transnational sense of the word, a country's most successful viral campaign may not be for a product sold in their own geographic boundaries.

2007 has closed its advertising evaluations in terms of viral campaigns with figures surpassing 5 million forwards in a single advert generated by the users themselves. This is without taking into consideration the various other versions derived from the campaign. This is the case for the international advertising group Fallon who with their "Gorilla Drummer" campaign has been able to generate more forwards that have gone beyond the twentieth generation mark in only a few months. Under the chords of "In the air tonight," the Argentinian copywriter Juan Cabral endowed a gorilla with musical abilities who starts playing the drums filled with the spirit of the Cadbury brand chocolates, (

The second top forwarded viral campaign is from the New York branch of the American advertising agency J. Walter Thompson. With a rap rhythm and as a video clip which the Spanish users found too similar to "Amo a Laura," three young adults parody the Californian life-style, praising Smirnoff green tea through clearly comical lyrics. The campaign was launched in August 2007, and within two months, three million and half users had visited it on YouTube, and then forwarding it.

Third place goes to Ray-Ban and its sunglasses catcher ( The success of this campaign lies in the fact that the advertisement is a "fake video" like the "Levántate ZP" campaign. That is, it is not an advertising commercial per se, but a falsification or parody of the brand's advertisement. Cutwater was the advertising agency for this last viral campaign that was forwarded 3.2 million times generating more than 12,000 user comments throughout the world.

As finalists, we must also note two campaigns that with their wit were capable of breaking viral records in the last year: first "Will it Blend?" which Apple started coinciding with the launch of its much desired I-Phone (; and secondly Unilever´s "Bom chicka wah wah"for its AXE product line. Both were visited 2.7 and 2.6 million times each, and the number of forwards for each have surpassed twenty generations.

As of now, 2008 continues last year's successful track record in terms of viral advertising. For now the remarkable campaign from the Shackleton 70MM agency has started up with the premier of the movie "The Eye." According to the creators, the centre of the site is the eye of a woman; a site that hopes to be the driving force behind the movie through the use of the fear of not being able to trust our own senses.

For the development of this site, hundreds of frames of the eye were filmed. With complex programming, the user can control the eye with his/her computer. The atmosphere and visual aesthetic of somebody that has just recuperated their vision are joined in this site where blurry shadows and bodies whisper the user's name or of the person of their choosing.

During the experience, the user can feel unexpected movements through videos and personalised photographs. Through the menu option "Spread the fear" you can viralise the experience. Despite the fact that the campaign results have not been made public yet, during the first weekend in Spain, its viralness surpassed the third generation of forwards, reaching almost half a million users.


5. As a conclusion

However you look at it, from Rushkoff´s 1994 announcement of the power of viralness, which until then was seen only in clinical fields, this communication tool has continued to grow at rates especially beneficial for the dialogue on advertising which with loss of the remote control had lost one of its key alliances.

This way, viral advertising overwhelmed the world of communications with a large number of benefits which we review below:

Minimal costs: The economic investment on behalf of the advertiser is minuscule in comparison to any other advertising format. Despite the fact that many campaigns become viral after having first passed by the television, more and more agencies are planning their viral strategy as the starting point for certain brands or products, and especially, for specific targets. It is worth noting that viral advertising substitutes the planning and purchasing of media through the direct management of databases, a fact that also implies a key cost reduction in its dissemination, along with the elimination of a series of transactions that often contribute to delays in the campaign's dissemination.

Maximum impact: The initial budget investment for a viral campaign is not directly proportional to its success. Often minimal costs imply a maximum impact; all of this is a function of creativity and the capacity to connect to the campaign's audience. In reality, if a viral action goes beyond the third generation of forwards, its success is guaranteed.

Lack of borders: Viral advertising has no borders, and often is not limited to its proposed target. This is why a campaign can become quite widespread in countries in which the product is not even sold - like the "Will it blend?" campaign for the i-phone in Spain, and it also reaches audiences before they even fit within the brand/product parameters.

Timelessness: The existence of sites like YouTube has eternalised the presence of certain online campaigns, acting as their historical archive and converting them into atemporal documents that periodically return to the inboxes of thousands of users, as a sort of cyber "revival."

Feedback: Clearly linked to the previous point, the multiple versions of campaigns created by users with their webcams or home video cameras has without a doubt attributed to the success of viral advertising. This contributes to the feedback of the original campaign, converting it into a cult object from which multiple remakes are produced.

Among the inconveniences of viral advertising is the lack of a fully reliable measurement system, since it does not provide exact data on the success or failure of the viralness from the start. On the other hand, not being able to define the target past the third generation of forwards is another of the problems confronting this type of unconventional advertising. What is certain is that once a message leaves the computer originating the diffusion, the audience profile receiving its impact is fairly unpredictable. In this sense, often audience levels are established relative to the number of the forwarded message generation.

In terms of what the future holds, few dare to say much beyond the campaigns combining internet viralness on mobile phone formats. Since it is just like Paul Válery professed, "The trouble with our times is that the future isn't what it used to be."


6. References

Alet, J.(2007). Márketing directo e interactivo. Campañas efectivas con sus clientes. Madrid: ESIC.

Brondmo, H.P. (2002). Las reglas del Marketing directo en Internet: Como usar el e-mail para interesar y dialogar con el consumidor.

Godin, S. (2001). Unleashing the ideavirus. Chicago: Hyperion.

Kerner, N.; Pressman, G. (2007). Chasing Cool. Standing out in today's cluttered marketplace. Atria Books: New York.

Kirby, J.; Marsden P. (2007). Connected Marketing: The Viral, Buzz and Word of Mouth Revolution. New York: Elsevier.

Martí Parreño, J. (2005). Publicidad y entretenimiento en la web. Madrid: RA-MA.

Rushkoff, D. (1994). Media Virus. New York: Ballantine.

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